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A Final Appeal: Save Christian Iraq

By Sandro Magister

Iraq (For the full story, go to Chiesa) — In Iraq’s bloody war, which is being fought primarily by Muslim groups against other Muslims and “infidels,” the Iraqi Christians are the only ones who are not using weapons or bombs, not even to defend themselves. There aren’t any armed Christian militias in Iraq . In fact, they are the most vulnerable and persecuted group. In 2000, they were more than a million and a half, 3 percent of the population. Today it is estimated that fewer than 500,000 remain.

In an official statement released on May 24, the Iraqi government promised protection for the Christian families threatened and chased out by terrorist Islamic groups. Some Muslim exponents have expressed solidarity. The government’s action — which, however, is devoid of concrete initiatives — follows the dramatic appeal issued on May 6 by Emmanuel III Delly, patriarch of the Chaldeans, the most numerous Iraqi Catholic community, in the homily for the Mass celebrated in the church of Mar Qardagh, in Erbil, Kurdistan .

But the Christian villages (in the Mosul region) are surrounded by hostile Muslim populations. And life is even more dangerous for Christians in the capital of the region, Mosul . Kidnappings are extremely common. The victims are released after their families have paid a sum of 10,000 to 20,000 dollars, or after they have agreed to hand over their homes and leave the city. But kidnapping can also end in bloodshed. In September of 2006, after Benedict XVI’s address in Regensburg , a group called “Lions of Islam” kidnapped Father Paulos Iskandar, a Syro-Orthodox priest. The kidnappers demanded that thirty fliers apologizing for the offenses brought against Islam be posted on the churches of Mosul . Then they decapitated him. On the same day, in Baghdad , another priest was killed, Father Joseph Petros. A sister told the Vatican news agency Fides: “The imams preach in the mosques that it is not a crime to kill Christians. It is a hunting of men.”

In Mosul , Islamic groups have begun to demand from Christians the payment of a tax, the jiza, the tribute historically imposed by Muslims on their Christian, Jewish, and Sabian subjects who accepted to live in a regime of submission, as “dhimmi.”

But it is above all in Baghdad that the jiza is being imposed upon Christians in an increasingly generalized way. In the neighborhood of Dora, ten kilometers southwest of the capital, with a high concentration of Christians, groups tied to al-Qaeda have installed a self-proclaimed “Islamic state in Iraq ” and are systematically collecting the tax, set at between 150 and 200 dollars a year, the equivalent of a month’s expenses for a family of six. The exacting of the tribute is being extended to other neighborhoods in Baghdad , toward al-Baya’a and al-Thurat.

Some Christian families in Dora have been told that they can remain only if they give a daughter in marriage to a Muslim, in view of a gradual conversion of the entire family to Islam. A fatwa forbids the wearing of the cross around the neck. As for the churches, warnings accompanied by grenade blasts have forced the removal of crosses from bell towers and facades. In mid-May, the Assyrian church of Saint George was burned down. So far, seven priests have been kidnapped in the capital. The most recent victim, in the second half of May, was Father Nawzat Hanna, a Chaldean Catholic.

According to estimates from the Iraqi government, half of the Christians have left Baghdad , and three quarters have left Basra and the south. Those who do not stop in Kurdistan leave the country. It is calculated that in Syria there are up to 700,000 Christians who have left Iraq , an equal number in Jordan , 80,000 in Egypt , and 40,000 in Lebanon . Most of them are stuck where they are, without any assistance or recognized rights, waiting for an unlikely visa for Europe, Australia , the Americas .